Dr Ian Pollard’s varied portfolio of careers has included playing tennis for Australia, writing books, coaching executives and heading companies. He talks to Zilla Efrat about the challenges and lessons learnt along the way.
As a managing director, adviser, director, executive coach and author, Dr Ian Pollard FAICD has certainly had a varied enough portfolio career to keep him on his toes.
In 1971, he was captain of the Australian Junior Davis Cup team and the youngest member of the Davis Cup squad. This led to his first trip overseas and matches against Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis and José Higueras.
A Rhodes Scholar and actuary by profession, Pollard’s first job was at an investment bank, Development Finance Corporation. Joining in 1977, he rose through the ranks to become its managing director and over time, began representing its long-term interests by sitting on the boards of the companies it invested in.
In 1984, he founded investment company Development Capital of Australia (DCA) and was its managing director from 1989 to 1998. Over his 23-year term as a director, he saw it grow to become one of Australia’s 100 largest listed companies. During his time there, he began coaching the CEOs of DCA’s "portfolio companies" and continues as an executive coach to this day.
"Coaching to me is a source of considerable fun and professional satisfaction as well as a great learning experience. It’s essential that you have fun while you grow," he says.
Today Pollard is chairman of RGA Australia and a director of Milton Corporation and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. He is also a member of the advisory councils of JPMorgan Australia and the UTS Business School.
He is the author of three books on corporate finance, but recently changed tack to write Investing in Your Life: Your Biggest Investment Opportunities are Not Necessarily Financial, which explores the analogy between the building of human and social capital and the accumulation of financial capital.
To further develop this thesis, Pollard is about to step out of his comfort zone again, taking a year off to travel and work in Europe and the US.
Company Director recently caught up with Pollard to discuss his plans, his career challenges and the lessons learnt along the way.
recently caught up with Pollard to discuss his plans, his career challenges and the lessons learnt along the way.
Company Director (CD): What have been the biggest challenges you have faced as a director and why?
Ian Pollard (IP): I have been chairman of two listed companies and a director of four others that have been taken over. The big challenge in such circumstances is to ensure the interests of the shareholders are protected. If you’re a director of a good company, particularly a leader in its field, the bid typically comes when you’ve had to make an announcement of a problem, like an earnings downgrade, and the share price has taken a rare hit.
For me, the toughest of these was at OPSM. We received a takeover bid from eyewear group Luxottica shortly after we had built our Hong Kong business by acquisition, only to be hit by the SARS virus and a 60 per cent drop in revenue. Throughout the period of the bid, we didn’t know whether SARS would disappear or reach epidemic proportions.
It made making a clear recommendation to shareholders particularly challenging, even after an increase in the offer consideration. The Luxottica bid for OPSM was a rare case in the Australian market of a few institutional shareholders not following a board’s "accept the offer" recommendation.
I was also a director of GIO Australia at the time of the bid by AMP. This bid had a number of complications, including that the two CEOs would not communicate as a result of having worked with each other in the US. I’m sure that sort of relationship did not augur well for the outcome. Hostile takeovers have a terrible track record in financial services. AMP gained majority control on the last day of the offer and we had no time to reverse our previous "don’t sell" recommendation. The takeover legislation now prevents directors and shareholders being placed in such a situation as the offer has to be extended in such circumstances.
As an outcome of the AMP bid for GIO, I was the subject of a class action, along with all the directors of GIO. After four years of litigation, the case was settled out of court. The settlement included an acknowledgement in favour of the directors.
CD: How has the global financial crisis changed the way things are done on the boards you sit on?
IP: The biggest effects have been on funding (the amount of borrowings, the costs and conditions of it and the amount of attention paid to it), acquisitions (with much clearer adherence to strategy and core business) and the takeover environment as a result of the reduced competitive advantage of private equity funds. There has also been a major effect on companies’ growth expectations in the next, say, five years because of the extent of deleveraging, which still has to wash through the international economy.
CD: How has directorship changed during your career?
IP: The fundamental principles of acting in the long-term interests of the company and its principal stakeholders haven’t changed much, but the implementation is far more complex and demanding and is often more short-term focused. It has become far more process-driven as we’ve learned from past failures. That has its obvious positives and negatives. On balance, it’s a positive for the company provided the board can achieve a sensible balance in its focus between conformance and performance. I’m not so sure it’s a positive for the life of a director and has certainly discouraged many experienced and capable people from taking on public company directorships.
CD: Do actuaries make good directors and what specials skills and strengths do they bring to the boardroom table?
IP: As with most professions, the nature and quality of contribution of an actuary will vary widely between individuals. Certainly most actuaries are quantitatively strong and risk-aware. They are typically good at thinking through alternative scenarios because much of actuarial training is about the future. For example, most actuaries would bring a healthy understanding of the effect on businesses of demographic change – a key issue in most countries in the decades ahead. They also probably have a better empathy and sense of humour than the traditional actuary jokes would suggest.
CD: How did you land up developing a portfolio of careers?
IP: I have a wide range of personal interests, a healthy curiosity and gain pleasure from engaging with others. The inevitable result is serendipity and opportunity and I’ve run with many of those opportunities. The result has been a portfolio career for most of my working life.
CD: What tips would you give other directors trying to manage a portfolio of careers?
IP: Enjoy it – something you’re more likely to achieve if you work with directors and management you respect and can communicate with. Don’t overcommit yourself – keep some flexibility for a new wonderful opportunity or the time demanded by something that has gone wrong, such as health problems, an underperforming company, a need to find a new CEO or an unexpected takeover bid. Only you know whether you are overcommitted or how much buffer you have.
I would completely ignore the Australian Shareholders’ Association’s formula on the number of directorships one should hold. It fails to recognise the varying demands by size and complexity of a company and one’s other interests, obligations and capacity.
Also, look for situations where the human and social capital you build in one context is of value in another.
CD: What gives you most satisfaction in the work you do?
IP: Seeing much better than linear growth in the capabilities of people, teams and businesses. And also my own growth through a diversity of roles.
CD: From your coaching experience, what are the biggest tips you can give aspiring CEOs or senior executives?
IP: Keep space in your diary. Don’t just run from meeting to meeting. Take time to reflect and for conversation.
CD: What lessons from tennis and sports have helped you in the boardroom?
IP: Some of my big lessons from sports were the importance of resilience; the power and pleasure of teamwork (which I learned from sports other than tennis); and the importance of working out how to capitalise on your strengths.
I also learned through sport something that now, almost 40 years later, enjoys the title "deliberate practice" – namely, the key to personal growth in your area of ambition is the discipline of taking on and practising things that are a little beyond your current level of competence but nevertheless within reach. You don’t progress by practising things you’ve already mastered. They say it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class at something (equivalent to three hours a day for 10 years). One of the most important competencies of coaches, whether in business, sport or music, is their ability to identify appropriate deliberate practice for clients and to achieve the clients’ buy-in to take it on.
CD: What inspired you to write your latest book?
IP: Investing in Your Life started as a book about conversations – this wonderful capability possessed only by humans, which enables us to leverage, preferably reciprocally, off the human and social capital of others. My interest in the power of engaged conversation merged naturally with my lifelong interest in the growth of human and social capital. So my subject matter morphed into an original thesis on tools for spotting the best opportunities for investing in your human and social capital. Most books about personal growth are about "how to", whereas mine is mainly about "why bother?", focusing on the size of opportunities and, therefore, also on the size of opportunity loss.
CD: You are taking a year off to pursue your interests overseas following the publication of the book. What are your plans and why are you doing this?
IP: I encourage my executive coaching clients to move outside their comfort zones. For 30 years, I have been a company director with an office in the Sydney CBD and I’ve read 10,000 consecutive editions of the Australian Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. I’ve realised I enjoy a healthy comfort zone here. Perhaps it’s time for me to move outside my comfort zone!
I also believe I have only touched the surface in the application of the thesis I present in my book – centred on a powerful analogy between the big drivers of the growth of financial capital and those of human and social capital. In the next 12 months, I will be exploring wider applications of it in personal, team and business development.
CD: What are you planning to do on your return to Australia?
IP: I have a relatively open mind on that and may be significantly influenced by things I experience or learn, or relationships I build, in the next 12 months.
CD: As a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, what are your greatest concerns about where climate-change policy is heading in Australia?
IP: I believe there is a high probability that global warming over recent decades is principally man-induced. Even if it is a lower probability, mankind cannot afford to take the risk and roll the dice with the future of the planet.
Hence, I believe it is essential that the world takes concerted action to slow down and ultimately reverse the accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere. To do this, we need lots of things, from new technologies to a market price on carbon. I don’t have a personal preference as to how a price on carbon is achieved, but I believe we can’t defer action and that it needs to be concerted international action.
I had a healthy reminder recently of differing levels of consciousness of environmental issues around the world and, therefore, the challenges and potential competitive disadvantages which may face countries that try to take a lead on these issues. At China Beach in Vietnam, my wife Tori and I watched men bringing in a fishing net. It was full of small fish and plastic bags. They carefully separated the plastic bags from the small fish, then kept all the small fish and threw the plastic bags back into the sea.
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